Mauna Kea rises gently toward the clouds 14,000 feet above the big island of Hawaii. You can drive to the top in two easy hours without realizing the mountain is 6 miles high: Most of it slopes unseen toward its base on the ocean floor.
That’s Tom Gabbard, the most influential figure in Charlotte’s cultural community today.
Locals know him as the guy who imports first-run Broadway tours: “Hamilton” opens Oct. 10 for a four-week run, extending Blumenthal Performing Arts’ string of Tony-winning musicals. They may even know that the BPA’s president and CEO oversees six theaters and exports the arts center’s offerings beyond those traditional walls.
But industry people will tell you he’s one of the most significant voices in American theater: President of the Independent Presenters Network (IPN), co-chair of the National High School Musical Theatre Awards (the Jimmys), co-producer or investor in dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
Judith Allen, his Blumenthal predecessor, sold Gabbard to her board of directors before leaving in 2003: The same press release announced her resignation and his hiring. His BPA span caps a career that began 40 years ago in California, as founding managing director of Pepperdine University Center for the Arts. (He earned a B.A. in music performance there in 1977.)
He’s changed everything in Charlotte, from the Blumenthal’s programming to its main entrance. With the arts center’s most-anticipated show on its way, he reflected on the last 15 years. The conversation, interspersed with comments from theater folk, has been edited for space.
Adjusting to Charlotte
When I come into a job, it’s fun to find out what makes that community tick and adapt my view of the arts to be relevant. I have lived in Malibu, Scottsdale (Ariz.), Denver, and for seven years before Charlotte, Green Bay (Wisc.). I thrived in all of those, because I respected each of those communities.
My wife and I had to break down some stereotypical notions of what the South was. For the first step of my recruitment, the board brought us here quietly for a long weekend; at the end, we were thoroughly in love with Charlotte. It’s an old city that welcomes newcomers, so long as you’re willing to get involved and make a difference.
Being on staff for 15 years at a conservative Christian university – Pepperdine represented that Reagan-era conservative style that doesn’t seem so conservative now – prepared me for being in a more corporate environment, where things were a tad more buttoned-down.
When the Blumenthal opened in 1992, uptown was desolate. Tryon Street was viewed as a dirty, dangerous place. Cesar Pelli designed this building so you could park in the deck (across College Street), cross through the sealed skywalk, stop at the box office in Founders Hall and never have to go outside.
Uptown Charlotte had changed by 2003. One of my top priorities was to reorient the building, so Tryon Street became our front door. Over the last 15 years, our focus has changed from operating the building to figuring out how we can make an impact on people’s lives.
Audiences give you a lot of latitude, as long as you’re honest and respect that there are things they’re not gonna like. We’ve never stayed away from anything because of content. If there are issues of language or subject matter, we disclose those and make no apologies. Then we respect people who want us to switch them to another show or give them a refund. That’s fundamental, but you’d be surprised how often that’s not the case.
If you’re committed to change, you’re committed to finding nuanced ways to get there. During the height of the HB2 stuff, we were the first city in the country to do two runs of “Kinky Boots.” This little show encourages people in a beautiful way to think about respect, to accept each other for who they are. I am proud of moments where we contribute to the conversation in a constructive way. We haven’t inflamed everybody and made things worse.
Connecting Charlotte to Broadway
I helped figure out the IPN (Independent Presenters Network) almost 20 years ago. Our first Broadway show was “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” where we made an investment in 2000. (It won the best musical Tony in 2002.) We’d each chip in (money) in the realm of $25,000 to $50,000, and that would represent a million dollars or more. That allowed us to have a seat on the partners’ committee and some say in decision-making.
The best example of why we do this goes back to 2004. Presenters assume any show that wins best musical will be in their cities in 18 to 36 months, but Steve Wynn announced he had exclusive rights to “Avenue Q” in Las Vegas, and it would not tour until he was finished. A year later, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” won. This time, I had put together a million-dollar investment and could persuade my New York partners we shouldn’t do the same deal. We licensed a deal with Wynn that we’d tour the rest of the country and stay out of California, Arizona and Nevada.
Because I’m frequently involved with shows at their earliest stages, raising first money, (BPA is) considered a friend of the production. A good example would be “Waitress” – I believe Sara Bareilles is destined to be a great musical theater writer – or “The Color Purple.” When you are part of the family, you’re given preference in bookings.
Orin Wolf, Tony-winning producer of “The Band’s Visit”: “Though there are hundreds of presenters across this country involved with Broadway, I can count on one hand the number I consider real producers. When a new show/tour begins taking shape that seems to live outside the normal Broadway fare, most presenters run for the hills. Tom always seems to be the one to lean in. One thing all great producers have is a need to take risk, an eternal optimism that drives one to produce or present in a way that is completely unexpected. Tom’s contribution to these ideals is substantial, and the legacy of his work will be felt for generations.”
Charlotte as a hot market
Booking agents have included Charlotte in the top 10 markets for years. The definition is the bottom line, what we generate in a week. Though our venue is not as big as some, we do a really good job of managing costs, so this city will frequently be among the most profitable for the tour. Many shows close at a loss on Broadway and go out on tour to try to make back some money, and cities that are good business partners are a high priority. There’s no magic to that.
Keeping small theater alive
When I got here, Duke Energy Theater had been home to Actor’s Theatre; they’d moved to Stonewall Street, and there was no successor. To get local companies thinking, we created a CityStage summer series, selecting four companies for two weeks each and giving them a small budget to remount something from the previous season. After two summers, I said, “Let’s do this year-round.”
Local theater companies use Duke Energy for two weeks rent-free for each title, and we give them marketing support. It’s now used almost exclusively by local theater groups and dance companies. Audiences are comfortable coming there, because they know it’s safe.”
Robin Tynes, co-founder of Three Bone Theatre: “Without this residency, we wouldn’t have been able to grow at the same rate over the last two years. In audience surveys, many folks say they found out about the performance through BPA. The technical capabilities of the space allow us to bring stories to life in a way we were unable to do in previous spaces. The location keeps us accessible by public transportation. Patrons can grab dinner before a show or a drink afterward and discuss the performance. We believe theater is a catalyst for community change; being in a location that allows folks to hang out afterward to have difficult conversations is important.”
I went to the first Jimmys (named for producer James Nederlander) 10 years ago. It was much smaller, maybe 12 communities participating. You had to have a regional program to qualify, and we didn’t. Twenty minutes in, I decided, “We’re gonna start one.” Our team spent a year and a half studying best practices; 2012 was our first year to compete, and 2013 was the year of Eva Noblezada (star of Broadway’s “Miss Saigon”). Ultimately, we’d have to organize the Jimmys as a nonprofit or find somebody to own it, and I got the Broadway League to own it for us. So the same people who work on the Tony Awards work on the Jimmys.
The scale of the show we do here (The Blumeys) does far more to prepare kids than other cities do. We bring in a team from New York for a weekend to advise best actor and actress candidates on repertoire and doing an audition. Nobody else has a student critics program. Kids play in the orchestra pit and work backstage. Only two other cities have a television broadcast like we have. This is now a program other cities study and aspire to.
Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin: “As one of our top leaders in the League, Tom has a major impact on Broadway and around the world. He has co-chaired the League Biennial Conference, at which we look to the future and develop the strategic plan for the entire industry. He is currently on the Board of Governors and Executive Committee of the League, has served on many committees and sits on the Finance Committee. He’s extraordinary.”
We have a junior ambassador program for juniors and seniors in high school. Members of the staff teach 90-minute programs about careers in the arts that are not onstage: marketing, technical work, fund-raising. Students become volunteer ushers for a minimum of two performances each month; for most, it will be their first time at the symphony or opera. Kids who grow up in families that are not privileged learn they belong here; they’re not outsiders.
Breakin’ Convention, the international hip-hop show, represented a turning point. We broke conventions of who we define as artists and brought the community together in non-traditional spaces. That led to redoing The Square outside Spirit Square, which had been a turnaround (for cars) and now has concerts and activities. It led to us setting up a free staging pavilion on Levine Avenue of the Arts for jazz concerts or things like “Hamiltunes.” We created this wonderful tent we use periodically in Romare Bearden Park. Now we’ll work with Center City Partners on the reboot of Charlotte Shout, pairing quirky international artists with local artists next spring.
Our colleagues replicated Breakin’ Convention in Miami, Harlem and Denver. How incredible was it that Miami would look to us and say, “Charlotte, you’re too cool”?
These matter a lot. “The Bodyguard” was done in the U.K., but producer David Ian decided not to bring it to New York because of the cost. I said, “IPN can help you figure out a way to tour and skip New York.” We had a very successful year and a half, and it was a big hit in Charlotte. I saw right away this show would attract white and black audiences, and we need more of those.
With “9 to 5” in 2010, lead producer Bob Greenblatt could not get the budget down to where it was financially viable. After he was appointed head of NBC, he turned to me and two colleagues and said, “We’re going to have to cancel the tour. If you can figure this out, I’m willing to let you have it.” We hired another creative team to make a lot of changes, and it went on to a hugely successful tour. Dolly Parton’s take was, “If that had been the show that opened on Broadway, the result might have been different.” (It closed there after 148 performances.)
I went to London (last month) for the first musical workshop of “Back to the Future.” About four and a half years ago, lead producer Colin Ingram said to me, “I want you to be one of the four partners.” It’s years away from coming to Charlotte, because we’re going to start in the U.K., but it’s an example of how we get in on the ground floor of things.
British choreographer Matthew Bourne, whose “Cinderella” comes in January: “Tom has been a wonderful supporter of my work. We have come to Charlotte not just because of our friendship, but also because Tom is a visionary. He likes to challenge and expand his audience to see work from around the world. My narrative ballets are seen in the U.K., in Europe, in Asia and Australia, and it has been a blessing that Tom has enabled us to bring our work to Charlotte – and therefore to other major cities across the United States.”
The only thing that comes to mind is Audience Rewards, a loyalty program we attempted to roll out nationally. We were the first city outside New York and tried mightily for a few years to make it work. You accumulated points that could be used for discounted or free tickets. We hoped to see partnerships with airline and credit cards to grow balances beyond buying Blumenthal tickets; ultimately, that didn’t happen.
I haven’t been disappointed with audiences, but there has been frustration getting colleagues to do shows. One was “Traces,” the acrobatic show. We had a true Broadway team producing with me, and the goal was to be “Stomp” for the Facebook generation. We did a year and a half off-Broadway and tried to tour, but presenters had gotten used to blockbusters; a sweet little show that was inexpensive and quirky didn’t fit. After four years of trying to gain traction, we gave up. Nothing in Charlotte keeps me awake at nights; it’s colleagues in other cities, whom I rely on to create critical mass that can make things happen, that worry me.
I’m 63. In the theater business, people seem to work later; those of us who are creatively driven (may stay) mentally younger than in other professions. For me, the driver has always been whether I’m having a creative impact. You would not believe the view I had in Malibu, looking straight out at the ocean, but I’ve left really great places because I felt I needed to, creatively.
That’s not where I’m at now. Redefining the role of a performing arts center, going outside its walls – we’re one of the few places in the industry that has embraced that. Whether it’s a hip-hop convention or high school musical theater awards, we’re innovating in ways that have an impact beyond Charlotte. My board and the community have celebrated new things we’ve tried. That’s why I’ve felt no need to go somewhere else.
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